I had a conversation with another psychologist recently about the increased level of stress and anxiety that we always see before the winter holidays, and the huge let-down and depression which is so common shortly after.

We weren't talking about all of the stress from trying too hard to get the holidays "perfect," the dysfunctional family chaos that many endure, or the disappointment that holidays didn't match up to the much-hyped "ideal."  Rather, we were talking about another aspect of winter-holiday stress: Being out of synch with our inner and outer environments.

On a basic physical level, our brains and bodies are wired to be doing less, eating less, and sleeping more when the days are shorter and the nights are longer. As much as we've evolved (or would like to think that we have), we still have a lot of neurological and biochemical holdovers from our pre-artificial-lighting origins.

So what happens when we are...

     ... staying awake well past dark every night (perhaps as much as seven or eight hours)

     ... waking up (or even commuting to work) before the sun is up;

     ... spending evening hours under artificial light with the TV or computer looking us in the face;

     ... staying up late too many nights, going to holiday parties or late-night shopping; and

     ... having our sugar-and-carb-intake at an all-year high (alcohol counts as a sugar, too)?


Here's some of what happens -- and this is just a partial list:

  • We mess up our biological clocks and biochemical regulation.
  • We make our sleep less effective at restoring and doing housekeeping in our brains (which is largely what sleep is for).
  • We place demands on our bodies which throw off our endocrine and neurological balance:
    - we fatigue our adrenal glands
    - we increase our output of the stress hormone cortisol
    - we mess with our insulin levels (which can lead to weight gain)...

There's more, but I don't want to stress you out any more than you already are.

I'm not a complete Scrooge -- really. I enjoy winter and all of the celebrations, traditions, and get-togethers it brings. And there are some benefits we can reap from this time of year: Spending more face-to-face time with friends, rather than the empty calories of e-contact (which David Rock wrote about recently over at HuffingtonPost.com), is good for improving your brain's neural integration. Also, if you cuddle and snuggle more in the colder weather (or longer nights), the increased touch stimulates hormones which help the nervous system calm down (oxytocin being a big one).

For most of us, though, the wear-and-tear of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a net loss.

By the time we get past the New Year, we've used up all of our reserves. Our adrenal glands (which have been propping us up with a steady supply of adrenaline) are shriveled up little raisins, and we've basically made a mess of our nervous systems, our immune systems, and our endocrine systems (since they're all inter-related, it's an easy trifecta).

Just when our bodies are telling us that we need to semi-hibernate, we get busier than we are all year. No wonder we get extra blue after the holidays -- we've gone against our bodies' needs, in a mad sprint from Halloween to Thanksgiving, an Iron Man triathlon through the December holidays, and then, just to finish the year off right, we stay up all night, drinking central nervous system depressants (another drink, anyone?) and start the New Year exhausted and out-of-whack.

What can we do to try to deal with all of this? Hibernate?

Sort of. For twenty minutes a day (or even just five): Meditate.

It's a simple way to help your body and your brain regulate itself better, buffer yourself from the stress of the season, and it has even been shown to boost your immune system.

 

Settling Your Brain For A Long Winter's Nap*

What I've noticed -- in myself, in my psychotherapy practice, and in the research findings on meditation and the brain -- is that mindfulness meditation helps meet this seasonal challenge in a number of ways.


The Top Four Ways That Mindfulness Meditation Helps With the Winter Holiday Blues:

#4: It's been shown that mindfulness meditation can make the sleep that you do get, more effective. There is also increasing evidence that regular meditation practice provides significant help with insomnia.

#3: Meditation has also been shown to have the same restorative effects as sleep itself, perhaps even more efficiently (that is, minute-for-minute, meditation can be more "effective" than sleep, in certain ways).

#2: Practicing mindfulness allows you to make better, more conscious choices, and acting less on impulse:
      - putting down the extra sugar cookie, golden latke, or champagne
      - going to bed earlier, or at least getting off the computer or TV sooner
      - resisting the impulsive/impatient too-expensive gift purchase
      - saying "no thank you" to some of the extra events

And: The Number One Way That Mindfulness Meditation Helps With the Winter Holiday Blues is:

#1: It re-wires and enhances emotional regulation in the brain. Instead of going on a wild emotional ride over the woods and through the river (!) , you've got a firm and compassionate grip on the reins to the sleigh.

That all means you won't be as vulnerable to the stressed-out hustle-and-bustle around you, and that all of that hormonal and neurological busy-ness is much more smoothed out.

Consider a few minutes of meditation every day to be a holiday gift to yourself. It's a gift that keeps on giving, all year long.

*************************************************************

If you'd like to learn how to do some basic meditation (no religion required), you can download a free mindfulness meditation here. You might also consider giving a book or CD on mindfulness meditation as a gift for yourself, or for loved ones.

The four introductions to mindfulness meditation I've listed below all come with audio meditations led by the author. (Note that while I've included links to Amazon, I'm in no way affiliated with them.)

  1. Insight Meditation: A Step-By-Step Course Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein (Sounds True, 2002). An excellent resource, from two pioneers in bringing mindfulness meditation to the US. In addition to the guidance of warm and patient teachers, it comes as a beautiful set, with two CDs, a workbook, and a set of study/reminder cards.
  2. Meditation For Beginners Jack Kornfield (Sounds True, 2008). Jack Kornfield, PhD has a realness and groundedness that I find very helpful for beginning meditators. He is an amazing meditation teacher, as well as a clinical psychologist. When I found that this great little book had come out in paperback, with a CD, I purchased several copies for my "lending library" to give to people who wanted to learn mindfulness meditation.
  3. Mindfulness for Beginners Jon Kabat-Zinn (Sounds True, 2006). Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD was one of the first people in the US to begin to bridge meditation and science. He brings a deep understanding to the teaching of mindfulness meditation to beginners, as he was the founder of a clinic at U. Mass. Medical where some of the unlikeliest people found their way to meditation, to help improve their medical conditions and their lives.
  4. Radical Acceptance: Guided Meditations Tara Brach (Sounds True, 2005). Tara Brach, PhD is a clinical psychologist and a long-time, world-class meditation instructor. While she uses simple Buddhist stories and ideas, most people find her guided meditations to be excellent, and accessible no matter what your belief system.

There are many more well-written books, CDs, and downloads on mindfulness meditation, but these are the ones that I recommend most often. If the first one you try doesn't appeal to you, try another -- we all have individual preferences when it comes to different voices, and different ways of teaching. (Just because you don't like one teacher, doesn't mean that it's the subject matter that's the problem!)

 

Marsha Lucas, PhD is a psychologist / neuropsychologist in Washington, DC. Learn more about rewiring your brain at ReWireYourBrainForLove.com, where she offers a free mindfulness meditation download and a monthly e-newsletter with meditation tips. You can also follow@DrMarsha on Twitter, and join her on her Facebook page.

 

*[with thanks to the classic Clement Moore poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas ("'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). Mama in her kerchief was pretty brain-wise, after all.]

© 2009 Marsha Lucas. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Marsha Lucas Ph.D.

Marsha Lucas, Ph.D.is a psychologist and neuropsychologist, and the author of Rewire Your Brain For Love (2012).

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